Should there be a dress code when flying?

by Karen Fawcett on August 31, 2012


There’s been a recent outcry over airlines censoring people about what they may and may not wear when boarding commercial flights. Some think people should dress with a modicum of respect when flying. But most say, “Anything goes.”

Because airlines don’t publish specific dress codes, what’s appropriate is subjective. Not only is freedom of dress at stake, but First Amendment rights come into play. Should people be allowed to wear shirts emblazoned with four-letter “expletive deleted” words, which have different meanings for different people?

Who should have the final word as to what you (and others) wear?

Are T-shirts with political statements, e.g. “Terrists gonna kill us all,” be a reason someone is denied boarding? It was, for an Arizona State graduate student Arijit Guha, who was barred from a recent Delta flight. Guha says he wore the misspelled shirt to protest what he considers racial profiling on the part of federal security agents.

If restaurant owners can refuse to serve someone who isn’t appropriately dressed, why don’t airlines have the same rights? In reality, they do, since planes are private property and not public spaces. On the other hand, what is inappropriate to some, is OK for others.

This isn’t only a T&A (breasts and derrière) issue, but in this world of dressing down rather than dressing up, should people be permitted to board planes sporting short shorts and flip-flops? What if they’re not wearing shoes?

A recent AP story included the vague dress codes for the four largest US airlines:

      • American Airlines: Bans passengers who “are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers.”

• Delta Air Lines: Reserves the right to remove passengers “for the comfort or safety of other passengers or Delta employees” or to prevent property damage.

• Southwest Airlines: Forbids passengers “whose clothing is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.”

• United Airlines: Bars anyone over 5 who is barefoot “or otherwise inappropriately clothed, unless required for medical reasons.”

Even though some people wax nostalgically about when people used to wear their Sunday best when flying, that era is history. Don’t even think that people, even in the front of the plane, are on the best-dressed list. Some “rich and famous” and rock stars excel in the grunge look.

A recent informal poll about flying attire elicited these answers from business travelers:

Charles Caro, Executive Director at Rebounders United, stated, “There used to be some decorum when flying, but those days are over. Today, if you show up with a paid ticket and something resembling clothing, you’re good to go. 

In fact, TSA rules have made “casual” the rule rather than the exception. I recently heard a story about a man having trouble getting through the TSA screening that was so frustrated with the metal detector he simply pulled off *all* of his clothes.”

Margaret Bennett, Managing Partner at Bennett’s At Your Service, wrote, “I sat next to a man who was very appropriately dressed, but who stunk to high heaven. Can the airlines regulate that he take a bath and wash his clothes before flying? To be honest, I’d rather sit next to a woman in a bikini (not really flying garb) than next to him, no matter how nice he looked from a healthy distance.”

Ms. Bennett continued, “

When I’m flying I just want the people I’m flying with to be mentally stable. I could care less about what they are wearing. I want to get where I’m going without a fighter jet escort or a hijacking.”

Michael Keane, Council member, appointed by the Governor of Vermont at Vermont Economic Progress Council, had an interesting perspective: “I dress neatly but casually for flying, whether on business trips or for holidays. I’d rather sit with people who dress and act the same way, but that doesn’t always happen. If someone has a paid ticket, there’s a level of contract so that the airline boards you, regardless of what you’re wearing. 

That being said, I believe that the airlines themselves are culpable for making air travel an uncivilized experience — treat passengers like necessary evils or like cattle and that’s what you may get.”

Do you agree that anything goes (when it comes to dress) when flying? If so, what can be done to make people WANT to dress a bit more when traveling? I’m not talking black-tie, but the idea of long pants and shoes does hold appeal — at least for me. What do you think, and more importantly, how and should it be monitored? Do post your thoughts.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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  • Cynthia

    Interesting topic, I think there should be some sort of dress code – I live in South Africa so all flights out of here are long haul. You pay a fortune to sit next to a person for 12 – 14 hrs, eating, sleeping, touching arms, legs etc. I once sat next to a guy who bulged out of his chair, he wore flip flops, shorts and a shirt with most of his buttons undone as he was sweaty….he snored and belched and his hairy arms, chest and legs kept brushing me…aahhh, just thinking about it makes me shiver again.

  • Anonymous

    I think the problem with airlines is not that they occasionally enforce dress codes, but that they treat it like a dirty secret when they do — thus denying the general public a good understanding of when and how these dress codes might be enforced, and denying their employees adequate guidance for handling such a complicated issue.

    In a restaurant, there are often prominent (or, at least, not hidden) signs telling you what is and is not acceptable. And in amusement parks these guidelines are noted on the websites, at the gates, and/or on the printed tickets.

    But with air travel, the dress codes are left to the capricious enforcement of flight attendants and gate agents — some of whom are free-wheeling, some of whom are prudes, some of whom have an axe to grind, and some of whom just don’t care.

    If the enforcement doesn’t make the news, it’s not reviewed internally to determine if it (1) conforms to current policy and (2) might speak to a need for refinement of current policy. And even if it does make the news, it’s often in the context of damage control for the one flyer, rather than guidelines that the rest of us might learn from.

    The airlines should share examples of what is acceptable and what is not, and work to ensure that their employees and their passengers are both well-informed about these policies.

  • onthefly

    Agree with the person who said the policies need to be disclosed on the website, at the ticket desk, and gate. Then they need to be uniformly policed. I would rather sit next to a pleasant slightly rumpled person than a rude fashionista bin hog. Comfort, safety, and appropriateness are what count the most.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=576001031 Jeff Linder

    One thing to note, First Amendment rights don’t really come into play once past the TSA. The First Amendment requires the government to allow free speech, not necessarily private operators (which the airlines are). The airlines are not restricted under the First at all (other anti-discrimination laws, possibly, but not the First Amendment)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=576001031 Jeff Linder

    One thing to note, First Amendment rights don’t really come into play once past the TSA. The First Amendment requires the government to allow free speech, not necessarily private operators (which the airlines are). The airlines are not restricted under the First at all (other anti-discrimination laws, possibly, but not the First Amendment)

  • Jimtbay

    The airlines are cramping me into a tight space. My plane may be delayed or I have to stand in a long line(s) so I am going to wear what I want to ensure my comfort, not to appease the person next to me. I have manners, so you will not notice me unless we strike up a conversation. Airlines need to get people from point A to point B in safely not be judges of clothing and styles.

  • bcalsk

    The airlines have created an abysmal flying experience, and have trained us to expect nothing from them, other than fees failures and frustration. Lets all dress in three piece suits and designer dresses so we don’t cause any frustration for the flight crews.

    When the airlines start acting like they have customers, maybe their customers will start acting like customers rather than the cattle they want us to be How about a discount for dressing appropriate? We could bring the ticket cost down by bathing, wearing shoes and brushing our teeth.

  • Joel Wechsler

    The AA policy is so broad that there is almost nothing that wouldn’t cause “discomfort or offense” to someone. How ridiculous is that? Southwest has already demonstrated that what is lewd or “patently offensive” in the eyes of one FA may not be to another. There is far too much leeway with these policies. Cleanliness should be more important than clothing.

  • R Katsaros

    I’d be much happier if they had a “smell” test. It is nauseating to sick next to somone on a long flight (even a short flight…) that has extremely offensive BO. Seriously. I”m not kidding. I actually purchased a personal spray cannister of air freshener for use the next time this happens to me. And although I worry about how offended someone might be with me spraying it, after sitting through hours of a full flight next to someone who smelled like they had just run a marathon AND rolled around in a garbage pit, my sense of offending the other person sort of went out the window.

  • Anonymous

    It is civil to dress neatly and to avoid obnoxious behavior. That being said, commercial aviation is public transportation, and airlines have the duties imposed on them as common carriers. That is, they have an obligation to serve everyone willing to pay the fare, up to the capacity of the aircraft.

    Some people simply cannot afford better clothes, and if homeless, they may have a very difficult time keeping themselves clean. Nonetheless, they may have a travel need. For longer distances, the total travel cost is lower by airplane than by bus or other means, and therefore it is reasonable to expect airplanes to be well-used by people of lesser means. Common carriers are duty-bound to serve all classes of people.

    Someone who wants the assurance of whom they will be traveling with ought to forgo the use of public transportation and use private transportation instead. But that being said, there is certainly nothing wrong while on public transportation with confronting someone and saying, “you ought to [whatever]” (assuming that the request is reasonable and within the control of the person to whom the admonition is directed). It’s just that one has to hope that common sense and civility will prevail, not the law.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a fallacy that airlines “have an obligation to serve anyone willing to pay the fare.” In fact, airlines have wide discretion in the matter. Fortunately, they rarely exercise that discretion. And some laws, such as the civil rights laws, provide brakes on any such actions.

    A few examples of reasons a person may not be accommodated include being on an airline’s private no-fly list. Yes, airlines have such lists separate from TSA/DHS lists. Certain medical conditions may preclude boarding. Passengers may be denied boarding if they are inebriated or exhibiting abnormal behavior. Unaccompanied minor children must meet certain requirements, and possibly additional fees, or they cannot be boarded. People insisting on bringing pets may be denied. Having reserved an exit row seat while not being qualified to sit there requires relocation to another seat; if such a seat cannot be found that passenger will be deboarded. And, of course, flight attendants’ orders and instructions have the rule of law and must be obeyed, subject to ejection (though not while in flight). Finally, the captain has the final say on who flies or not in his airplane and technically can decide who flies and who doesn’t.

    Dress and hygiene are in the grey area and airlines have their own levels of tolerance. But they still have the say in who they can transport.

  • Anonymous

    As with most things there are oftentimes exceptions to the general rule. (See Lombard v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 267, 280 (1963) (Douglas, J., concurring: “An innkeeper or common carrier has always been allowed to exclude drunks, criminals and diseased persons, but only because the public’s interest in protecting his and his guests’ health and property outweighs its interest in providing accommodations for this small group
    of travelers.”)) But, in general, common carriers must be available to everyone willing to pay the fare, up to the capacity of the carrier. (See, e.g., Shoemaker v. Kingsbury, 79 U.S. 369, 376 (1870) (Common carriers “undertake, for hire, to carry all persons indifferently who apply for passage; and the law, for the protection of travellers, subjects such carriers to a very strict responsibility.”) This is in contrast to a private carrier (also known as a contract carrier) which does business with only a limited number of persons, and does not serve everyone.

    Some of the examples given relate to capacity and fare issues, and some others are understandable exceptions to the general rule. And while a pilot may have authority over the command his or her aircraft, should a pilot act cause his or her employer to violate the law by refusing to transport a person, then the carrier will nonetheless be liable. (Consider: an airline corporation is not immune from liability for discrimination simply because its pilots decide, “I don’t like people of the [fill-in-the-blank] race and I won’t let them on board my airplane.” They might not fly but they can then sue the airline.)

    But I am wary of the existence of any carrier that purports to maintain and enforce a “no fly” list of its own. Are there any reported cases of carriers being permitted to do so? I have heard of several airlines stated that some person is “banned,” but I’ve always considered that to be mere rhetoric and something which is enforceable.

  • raymundo

    People who dress well should be seated together in the front of the plane

  • Anonymous

    Actually, I think some people should be required to have a dress code before leaving their house!

  • Lee

    You’ve got that right about stinky people. That’s a FAR greater problem than whatever someone is wearing or not wearing.

  • Lee

    I think attractive women should be allowed to wear as little as they prefer. It’s the only thing to look forward to in air travel today. :)

  • Icarus

    Hear, hear! With the discontinuance of previously complimentary perks like meals, movies, etc., there is little to look forward to, other than eye candy, to ease the airline’s commercially motivated avarice!!!!

  • Icarus

    Hear, hear! With the discontinuance of previously complimentary perks like meals, movies, etc., there is little to look forward to, other than eye candy, to ease the airline’s commercially motivated avarice!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/francine.vandenberg Francine Van Den Berg

    This dilemma does open a broader field of customer behaviour on board. Intoxicated passengers are allowed to board in some cases, since the airline ‘cannot bear responsibility for the behaviour of other passengers’, and furthermore, the airline may be seen as discriminating against them without sufficient grounds and risk being taken to court. If a passenger complaints about another passenger kicking against his seat, vomiting over him, or other disrespectful behaviour, what should the airline do? Safeguard their passengers’ comfort, or say ‘none of our business’?
    I found it interesting to read that an airplane is considered ‘private, not public’ space’. If this is the case, the airline should be entitled to follow its own policy about what can or cannot be tolerated, including the dress code area.

  • Anonymous

    I remember when there were “stewardesses”, who were attractive women, attractively dressed. But then, I’m old. And I couldn’t afford to fly much back then.

  • Matthew in NYC

    People really need to use common sense when dressing for travel. Different flights have different needs. On a short haul flight, you see a lot of one day business travellers dressed accordingly, but that shouldn’t stop the leisure traveller from wearing resort wear. On a long haul flight, most seem to dress for warmth and comfort so you see a lot of sweat suits and flight suit type pajamas. I think that you need to cover most of the skin between your neck and knees – very few people want to sit next to someone on a flight who is wearing a swimsuit. And avoid clothes with political or “humorous” messages – your politics/taste in jokes, is not going to be universally shared. Planes can be cold/hot, so you need to be aware of that. Those seats and the carpet are also dirty, so you really don’t want to be exposing your skin to other people’s grime any more than you have to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/francine.vandenberg Francine Van Den Berg

    Wish I could say the same thing for men. Unfortunately however they do not increase in attractiveness when they expose too much:). Do us a favour and dress elegantly, so women have some eye candy on board too.

  • Carlo

    For many years, travelers have not been allowed to make “terrist” jokes during the screening process, long before there WAS a TSA. Private businesses, such as the airlines, are certainly allowed to abridge your free speech rights because as someone else stated, that amendment only applies to government control of your speech (or dress, in this case). But I am not in favor or a dress code that goes beyond what is allowed through screening because it is so subjective. Airlines could ban all political statements and jokes on clothing because one person might find another’s humor/politics to be in poor taste. But is that a world you want to live in? One where you can’t say what you think because it could offend someone? Heaven forbid I should have to leave my PICNIC error t-shirt at home because someone thinks ants are an affront to humanity!

  • drdemento

    Go into any public space today and you can see people dressed (if that’s the term) in the most vulgar and inappropriate ways. And don’t tell me that these people can’t afford anything else. It’s not a matter of money. Money has nothing to do with it. You can dress tastefully on the same budget that it takes to dress like a slut. The difference between a park, a beach or a Wal-Mart on the one hand and an airplane on the other is that you can’t move away on an airplane. I believe that the captain of the airplane, or the chief cabin attendant, should be given broad discretion to exclude anyone who is likely to make the travel experience less pleasant for his or her fellow passengers. The publicity given to this new standard will give people a strong incentive to dress appropriately for plane travel.

  • basil f fensterwald

    soap and water is cheap; no need to smell. as for clothing, if people want to look like slobs, let them. I wear appropriate clothing for my air trips and found I am treated just a little bit better than the rest of the cattle in the cattle car; there again I prefer premium economy.

  • Edward Hasbrouck

    “Planes are private property and not public spaces.” Planes are private property, but by law in the U.S. and almost all other countries they are licensed and “common carriers”. That means they are legally required to transport anyone offering to pay the fare in their published tariff.

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